When it comes to justice for Shamima Begum, who do we think we are?
Posted on February 18, 2019
I was convinced that the men and women who served in the International Brigade were heroes when I first heard of them and I remain so today – despite the fact that I met a few of them and there were some curmudgeonly old beggars among their number. The Brigades comprised young people who simply upped sticks and went to fight the fascists in Franco’s Spain in 1936. They weren’t compelled or conscripted, they simply knew what was right and they were prepared, literally, to fight for it. Those that survived came back and then fought the Nazis a few years afterwards. I’d call that proper commitment.
I would like to think that, had I been around, I too may have broken my parents’ hearts by turning my back, however reluctantly, on the safe life they had tried to build for me in order to fight an enemy that needed quelling. I’m not sure I’d have had the nerve, but even if I hadn’t, the state would have made my mind up for me a few years later.
In the past decade or so, our society has agonised over the fact that well educated, apparently sensible young people with good prospects, could throw all of this away to waste their lives on a movement whose deeds and attitudes are so inimical to our own. To think this way is to blank out the thought, however unpalatable, that when Shamima Begum and her chums embarked on their adventure four years ago, they must have been utterly convinced that they were setting off to do good. Much has been made of their youth, but history is littered with young people so desperate to serve that they have been prepared to lie about their age and have met with agencies, official or otherwise, who have been prepared to blink at the deception.
I don’t pretend to understand the detail behind their decision and, just for the sake of absolute clarity, I find the actions, outlook and ideology of the groups they joined utterly repugnant. But I do understand, and just about remember, the energy, vigour and, of course, the breath-taking stupidity of what it is like to be a teenager with a cause. By a bizarre coincidence, it’s been entertaining to see how the media has grudgingly admired the display of conscience and concern exhibited about climate change by such young people recently.
What appears to have inflamed much of the commentary over the last few days has been Shamima Begum’s lack of remorse. Or, to be entirely clear, the way that has been reported through some selective quotation from two news agencies. This has been exacerbated by her wish to come home to live peacefully with her baby – that’d be the one baby of the three she has had so far to survive. The opprobrium heaped on her for expressing such an apparently outlandish wish speaks ill of those who express it. It is difficult to envisage any other circumstances where such an absence of compassion would be tolerated.
That she has been complicit in atrocious deeds appears to be undeniable. That such actions should be subject to full scrutiny and the law enforced to its fullest extent is beyond question. That a full assessment be made of the threat she poses to society and the proper punishment or sanction applied is obvious, as is the need to consider how any such sanction may have an impact on those minded to emulate her actions.
Yet to hear and read some of the intemperate howling of the last few days, it might appear that a desire for vengeance and humiliation outweighs the rule of law when it comes to dealing with this young woman and her child. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I thought the whole idea was to demonstrate that ‘we’ are better than those who choose summary, barbaric and arbitrary punishment over reason and true justice.
Hypothetically, would I like to shake her and drum some sense into her? You bet. Would such a reaction have any effect? Would it help her to see the gaps of rationality in her comments? Would she realise that an argument that says I left a system that was corrupt and venal but now I wouldn’t mind using its services, is untenable? I have to observe that a lifetime of dealing with teenagers and young adults tells me that it could only lead to a hardening of her resolve.
Shamima Begum was, initially, a victim of unscrupulous and horribly dangerous people. The extent to which she was then in control of how she conducted herself is uncertain, but all accounts that come from that part of the world would firmly indicate that she was not. Were her conditions transposed to, for example, those of a young woman whose teenage life had been subject to systematic sexual abuse, we would have little problem in attempting to find some mitigating circumstances for what she has done. Her child is innocent.
In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare explores the delicate balance between mercy and justice. When the Duke tells the hapless Shylock that he will not impose the death penalty, as all parties might expect, he says that he does not do so in order ‘that thou shalt see the difference of our spirits’. It’s a thought worth holding on to when a daft teenager finds herself in the dock of public opinion.